‘Concerning reports’: Penny Wong downplays risk of India meddling in Australia affairs
19th September 2023

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New York: Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong says the Albanese Government is deeply concerned by allegations that India was behind the murder of a Sikh man in Canada, but she refused to be drawn on claims that separatists in Australia could be next.

Speaking at the United Nations headquarters in New York, Wong said the government had raised the issue with its Indian counterparts and would continue to monitor the situation closely.

Australian Foreign Minster Penny Wong speaks in New York. Credit: AP

“Investigations are still underway but obviously these are concerning reports,” she said.

“Australia’s principal position is that we believe the sovereignty of a country should be respected. We believe the rule of law should be respected.”

Tensions escalated on Monday (local time) when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his country was investigating “credible allegations” linking India to the killing of a Canadian citizen and prominent Sikh leader, Hardeep Singh Nijjar.

Nijjar was a key figure in the Khalistan separatist movement, which is campaigning to establish an independent state for Sikhs in the northern Indian region of Punjab.

The 45-year-old was designated by a “terrorist” by India in July 2020 and gunned down outside a Sikh temple on June 18 in British Columbia, Ottawa.

“Over the past number of weeks, Canadian security agencies have been actively pursuing credible allegations of a potential link between agents of the government of India and the killing of a Canadian citizen Hardeep Singh Nijjar,” Trudeau told parliament on Monday as he vowed to “to hold perpetrators of this murder to account”.

Trudeau’s explosive allegation set off a fiery tit-for-tat between the two countries, both of which are key allies to Australia and the US.

Canada expelled an Indian diplomat on Monday, followed by India doing the same of a Canadian official as it rejected Trudeau’s accusation as “absurd and motivated.”

But one of the Khalistan movement’s leaders, Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, warned that “Australia is the next target for Indian agents.”

He said peaceful protests in Australia had also been disrupted, quasi-referendums had been blocked and demonstrators had been intimidated by Indian government supporters in Australia.

Asked if she had any concerns about foreign interference from India on home soil, Wong replied: “I think Australia is a robust democracy and I think the Indian diaspora has a range of views and we have made clear … that the peaceful expression of different views is a key part of Australia’s democracy.”

The minister’s comments came after a day of impassioned speeches at the UN General Assembly, which was set against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine, the existential threat of climate change, as well as global food and economic insecurity.

Earlier, US President Joe Biden and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed the assembly, calling on the world to stand united against Russia’s aggression – a position staunchly backed by Australia.

“Russia breached the UN Charter,” Wong said. “We have to do everything we can to protect it.”

The Foreign Minister will address the UN General Assembly on Friday night in a speech that is expected to emphasise the government’s commitment to climate change policies and to preventing conflict in the Pacific.

But reform of the UN is also on the agenda, Wong said, noting that “across many issues, the UN system is falling short of where we want it to be and where the world needs it to be”.

Earlier on Tuesday, she met with her German counterpart Annalena Baerbock on the margins of the General Assembly and co-hosted a high-level event with Japan on fissile material cut off treaty, which aims to prevent the continued production of the material that creates nuclear weapons.

The UN first flagged the need for such a treaty 30 decades ago, but decades later no such treaty exists.

“Australia will be working with other countries to try to get that treaty negotiation under way,” Wong said. “We know it’s a hard ask but it’s so important to the objective that we all share: a world free of nuclear weapons.”

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